Statistics need certificates20 October 2000
The International Energy Agency’s catalogue of statistics lists Electricity Information among its titles. This annual compilation is claimed to be reliable, authoritative and essential for business planning in an ever more competitive market. The publication is, in the agency’s words, ‘Ideal for both member countries of the OECD and those employed in all sectors of the energy industry’.
I cannot resist noting that the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) in fact has many more than two countries as members, and I dare say that the IEA is much better at statistics than at syntax. But even the best statisticians cannot improve on the quality of their input data.
Stories have been told of garbage inputs to statistics offices at all levels, from the humble to the national, international or higher. Just a little story will do for this page this time. It comes from one of our correspondents. He tells us that the Indian tax authorities have taken legal action against 25 companies and banks for fictitious transactions relating to imaginary ‘windmills’, which I guess to be wind turbine generators rather than simple grain grinders. Who knows whether the phantom installations entered India’s wind power statistics?
Is that story a straw in the wind (no pun intended) or an anecdote of infinitesimal importance? What proportions of the various inputs received by the world’s statisticians are suspect, I wonder, and can those professional calculators always validly assess the significance of the faulty fractions? We should always be informed when, and to what extent, they cannot: at whatever level they operate. Or is that a counsel of perfection?
Say it with (preselected) feeling
I have information on what the suppliers describe as ‘a new user-recordable tone and voice message sounder ideal for industrial safety and security applications’. It offers a sound output of 103 dB, a choice of sixteen different warning tones and up to four recorded voice messages of 12 s duration. According to the official text, ‘all messages can be precisely tailored to suit the customer’s requirements. The playback quality is of a high standard and a volume control allows output to be optimised to the operating environment’.
A visitor of mine picked up the document from my desk and read it in my office while I was on the telephone. She evidently scanned it too hurriedly before telling me about it. She was bubbling with enthusiasm for what she thought was a public address system that allowed a recorded voice to be given sixteen different tones of warning.
I think she was not so much mistaken as on to something. Why not have a knob to control the degree of urgency or other emotion in an announcement? Theoretically, the message could be voiced at those different degrees in consecutive recordings, but managers might baulk at hiring professional actors to span the required emotional gamut. Far better for the manager or his minion to speak unemotionally into the microphone and then have pushbutton selection of the actual, electronically contrived, broadcast tone.
Imagine, for instance, a system calling out what is on offer that day in the works canteen. Think of the range of nuances with which the various dishes could be enumerated, after tone selection by a computerized aroma analyser in the kitchen.
Or consider the possibilities open to a plant manager who has recorded an announcement for use when alerting staff to the presence of a party touring the site. The pushbutton panel could give tone options ranging from, say, affection for schoolchildren; through guarded welcome for students, respect for specially interested professionals, bemusement by variously interested rubbernecks, wariness of the media, stoicism with politicians, injured innocence before management consultants, resentment of environmental protestors, fear of head-office downsizers and loathing for take-over teams; on to awe of royalty, entrancement by showbiz people and scepticism toward beings from outer space.
I am not altogether confident that the suppliers would tailor their product to give you so much adaptability to your operating environment, but you could try asking them.*
*They are Klaxon Signals Ltd, 502 Honeypot Lane, Stanmore, Middlesex HA7 1BE, UK